Paving the path to freedom: a historical review of Ceylon’s journey to self-governance

Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was formerly known, was under foreign domination for well over Four Centuries. It was under the rule of various colonial powers from 1505, till its independence in 1948.

Following their invasion in the early 16th century, the Portuguese gradually continued to extend their control over the coastal regions of Sri Lanka while attempting to push further inward. As a counter measure, the Sinhalese moved the country’s capital inland to the Kingdom of Kandy. Continued warring, resulted in the Kandyan King Rajasinghe II seeking assistance from the Dutch in 1602. This however did not prove to be the solution they expected as breaches of agreements by both parties resulted in the eventual capture of all of the country, by the Dutch, barring the Kandyan stronghold.

Ceylon became a crown colony under British rule in the early 1800s when the Dutch ceded their part of the Island to Britain in 1802, who in turn made continued attempts to seize the Kandyan Kingdom, the last remaining independent part of the country, and eventually succeeding in 1815, effectively ending all remaining independence. Realizing the immense potential of Ceylon’s harvesting crops such as Tea, Coffee and Rubber, the British held a monopoly over the plantation sector, bringing in labourers from South India to meet the increasing demand for cheap labour, favouring themselves and a few members of the Sinhalese elite.

Years of Colonial Oppression and misuse of the countries rich resources led to a pressing need to uplift the prevailing situation of the rural poor. A need that eventually led to both D.S. Senanayake and his brother F.R. to stand up in favour of political freedom from Colonial reforms. This led to the founding of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) to push for greater autonomy as well as to seek independence by gradual modification of the country’s status.


was strongly influenced by the scholar and orator, D. B. Jayatilaka, who entered the Legislative Council at the same time as him. He considered the older gentleman as his mentor and friend for over twenty years, forming a great partnership as members of both the Legislative Council and later on, as Ministers of the State Council.

The process of regaining independence however was no easy feat. In order to make the transition from colonial status to semi-government, the Ceylonese had to attempt to reverse the process by first framing their own constitutions, calling into being their own parliamentary system and cabinet; steps that were hitherto considered unprecedented.

D.S. insisted that their primary objective should be to achieve dominion status, in association with the British rather than in opposition. His underlying idea was that the legislature would become increasingly active and practice wider control, which would eventually lead to self-governance. Although faced with some resistance from the CNC, he received strong support regarding the allied war, from all political opinion leaders in the country. The country’s outstanding record of war-time cooperation during World War II, resulted in principal British officials supporting his cause for self-governance.

In introducing the second reading of the Ceylon Bill, Lord Addison, the Lord Privy Seal and former Colonial Secretary had this to say, “This is the first occasion in our history, upon which a colony, developing the system of self-government of its own accord, had deliberately sought to become a Dominion state in our Commonwealth, but we hope and expect, it will not be the last.”

Despite the unusual circumstance of Ceylon’s passage to self-governance, in comparison to the other countries that were previously under British Rule, the Crown granted the country its independence, based on its leaders proving their political maturity and capabilities for self-governance.